Thursday, March 12, 2009

Who's science is it anyway?

In the February 24th issue of the New York Times (ancient history by blog-o-sphere standards), John Tierney penned an article titled, Politics in the Guise of Pure Science. In this article, Mr. Tierney discusses how scientists are prone to viewing themselves as either an aloof researcher, far above the concerns of the day, or as an impartial arbiter, interpreting groundbreaking science for the uneducated masses. Neither caricature is an accurate portrayal of the role scientists play in the political arena. Scientists will identify themselves as speaking for "science," to lend credibility to their political stance and to undermine the positions of their political opponents. At other times they will exaggerate their findings in order to steer the political debate in a direction more agreeable to their beliefs.

In the March 10th edition, Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote about how, Obama Puts His Own Spin on the Mix of Science With Politics. President Obama has directed the federal bureaucracy to select science advisers based on expertise and not ideology. This came amidst the reversal of the Bush administration's policy on stem cell research. The article continued to discuss the censorship of science under the Bush administration and contained the stock defense of the policies from the political right. Quoting Karl Rove may have been a subtle attempt to discredit the right wing defense of the treatment of science during the Bush years.

Both of the articles address the question as to the role of science in a democracy. One would have to be naive or extremely partisan to not admit that science took a back seat to party politics during the Bush years. Now the big question is, will science be taken seriously in the Obama administration or will it simply be that scientific voices that are in harmony with the political wind of the time will be heard? Perhaps it would be better for public dialogue if everyone admitted that science does not speak with one voice, not would you want it to, and that all scientists have biases and preconceptions, not matter how hard they may work to overcome them.

It is difficult to find the proper place for science in a modern democracy. Clearly, placing science as the final arbiter to truth and the direction of public policy is not the answer. You simply have to look back at the eugenics movement or phrenology to see how science can be disturbingly wrong. While science is usually self correcting in the long term, for the time frame public policy is shaped in, other factors need to be there to temper cold, analytical science.

Also, the role of the expert is problematic. With all the specialization in the arena of science and in society in general, experts are just a fact of life. It's just not possible to know everything anymore. So taking the advice of experts in one field or another is often unavoidable, in optimal conditions it is even desirable. The downside is that when you have fraudulent scientists for hire that will work backwards from their results to justify whatever political position you happen to have, the role of the expert becomes tainted. Having disingenuous people out there who will say that anthropogenic global warming is not happening in exchange for a generous enough research grant, it casts a shadow of doubt over all expert opinions. While I would like to present a quick and witty solution to this problem, I instead leave you with a famous X-files quote, "Trust no one."

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